Category Archives: critical management studies

Online book launch – 6-7pm UK time Tues Nov 30th 2021

If you’d like to pop in for just an hour to hear about the new book, to meet others interested in complexity, to meet old friends and perhaps some new ones,  and to celebrate the legacy that Ralph Stacey has left us, then write to me at c.mowles@herts.ac.uk and I’ll send you a link 24 hours ahead of the launch.

Complexity and Management Symposium 20th Nov – booking now!

How might we think about the politics of waiting – who waits the longest and for what? If organisations exist in a state of frenetic standstill, where we never catch up with ourselves before embarking on the next change, does ‘slow management’ help? What is involved in the decision to wait or to act, and in what ways is waiting also a form of action? What did periods of enforced lockdown, waiting for things to open up, enable and inhibit?

Complexity and Management Symposium Nov 20th 2021 – booking now.

If you are interested in spending the day discussing, reflecting and arguing with other colleagues, then the Complexity and Management Symposium offers an opportunity to explore the nexus of waiting and time. With a mixture of large group and small in the morning, and presentations on the theme of the complexity of waiting in the afternoon, the Symposium is booking now.

The waiting is over.

Complexity – a key idea for business and society

Coming out at the end of November and turning on 7 types of complexity: thoughts about complex selves, complex action, complex knowledge, complex communication, complex authority and complex ethics, all arising from complex models. A plea for management humility along the way.

Complexity and Management Online Symposium 9.30-5.00pm Sat Nov 20th, 2021. Booking soon!

One of the great promises of an accelerated and globalised world, is that it would increase autonomy, freedom and choice. But that’s not how it has turned out, according to German sociologist Hartmut Rosa . Instead social acceleration has led to greater disorientation and fragmentation and a deficiency of resonance. We find ourselves in frenetic standstill. Nothing remains the same, but nothing essentially changes. The more rapidly changing circumstances oblige us to plan to keep up, the more we realise the plans we do make and our methods of planning are inadequate for the new situations we find ourselves in. Acceleration produces its own disruptions, traffic jams, outages and lacunae.

We are also remade in our relationship with ourselves and with the world. In rapidly changing times greater social advantage is gained by those who have fewer commitments, are more flexible in their sense of self and their convictions. The idea that we might have enduring principals, values if you like, to which we cleave, appears slightly old fashioned. Why would we stand firm for anything in a society which appears to value endless adaptability and flexibility? At the same time we encounter an increase in life events, but a hollowing out of experience, which can lead to depression  and ennui, and an attenuation of resonant relationships. This makes it harder to gain determinacy, to recognise ourselves and others in a shifting world.

Are there advantages to be gained, then by waiting, by dwelling with events to transform them into experience? Is this an argument for staying put, for standing firm, for not rushing on to an idealised future, or at least not yet, but to reflect on what’s going on and to take the time to do so.

The online Complexity and Management Symposium is a good place to do this. The working title is: The Complexity of Waiting. It’s an online event for anyone who enjoys reflecting in large groups and small on the experience of being in relation in the early 21st C.

Enjoy the sense of irony that we have been kept waiting by the university for the booking site to go up. But , it may only be a week before you can collapse the excitement of waiting into the purchase of a ticket for the event. In the meantime, if you would like to offer a workshop in the afternoon related to the theme of the Symposium, please contact me on c.mowles@herts.ac.uk .

I hope to see you there.

Prof Hari Tsoukas’ key note speech at the June 2021 Complexity and Management conference

This year we held another highly participative conference to discuss the complexity of practice. In order to help us frame the day, we invited Prof Hari Tsoukas of Cyprus and Warwick Universities to give us his thoughts on complexity and practice, which you can watch below.

In the meantime, the Complexity and Management Conference is planning an online symposium for Saturday November 27th 2021, another date for your diaries.

Conflict and complexity in the time of Covid-19 – online Symposium/Practicum Sat Nov 28th. A few tickets still available.

There are still a few places left for the Complexity and Management Centre’s Symposium/Practicum on Conflict and complexity in the time of Covid-19, on November 28th. You can book here.

The day comprises large and small group discussion of the every-day practicalities of working with conflict in organisations. For more details on the programme, look here.

How are we as hosts of the Symposium/Practicum approaching the day in terms of our assumptions?

There are a number of ways in which conflict is understood in organisational literature.[1] The first perspective is to consider it an aberration for the high-functioning, aligned organisation which thrives on positivity and high trust. From this perspective, conflict should be overcome, or mediated as quickly as possible because it’s an obstacle to progress. As a worker in an organisation where this set of assumptions predominate, one might be invited to leave one’s bad self, or perhaps political self, at the door. This might be an idealising environment to work in where a premium is placed on charisma.

A second way of understanding conflict is to think of it as necessary to the exploration of difference as long as the organisation can optimise it to fulfil its aims. Optimising involves not too much conflict and not too little, but just enough. This Goldilocks equilibrium is achieved by managers intervening in the conflict to bring about the desired ends. The assumption here is that the conflict is amenable to intervention, that the manager doesn’t have a stake in the game themselves, and they are able to nudge the conflict into an optimised state. In this organisation the tools and techniques of leadership and management may predominate.

A third perspective conceives of organisations as a market place where lots of autonomous individuals try to maximise their interests. The conflicts arising from competing interests are mediated by contracts and social control mechanisms to maximise efficiency for the organisation. Competition between individuals is to be encouraged if it leads to greater efficiency in the organisation, if you assume that all individuals can compete equally. In making this assumption this economic perspective on conflict denies power inequalities and hierarchies. This kind of thinking often predominates in financialized organisation driven by metrics as ‘price mechanisms’.

Meanwhile, a critical perspective, and one which we adopt as a faculty group in shaping the agenda for the forthcoming Symposium, always creates the possibility for conflict because it calls into question the taken-for-granted. There is no assumption that the way things are is the way they need to be, or that they are inevitably that way, or that we should aim towards some kind of ideal of positive cooperation. There is no assumption that a manager is somehow outside of the ebb and flow of both cooperation and competition which ensues when people try to get work done together, nor that they are unaffected by it, nor that they can intervene to bring it to any equilibrium state. A critical perspective tries to take into account history and power relationships, and assumes that as social beings we are not autonomous, rational individuals trying to maximise our utility. Instead a critical perspective assumes that we act on the basis of a plurality of motivations which raise a variety of ethical questions which can only be considered in concrete situations with particular actors. At the same time there is no attempt to deny that there are broader social trends which advantage some social groups and disadvantage others, sometimes for long periods of time.

If this last perspective on conflict is of interest to you, then it would be great to see you there on the day.


[1] I found Alessia Contu’s article (2017) on Conflict and Organization Studies,  in the journal Organization Studies, April, 1–18 really helpful, although Professor Contu is not responsible for the way I have mangled some of her ideas and added my own.

Complexity and Management Online Symposium – Sat November 28th 2020

Following the success of this year’s online Complexity and Management Conference on Leadership and Collaboration, and with the encouragement of the delegates who attended, we have decided to hold a one day Symposium this November 28th 2020. The event will also be online and will mark the half way point towards next year’s conference, which we intend holding face to face as usual at Roffey Park, UK, June 4th-6th 2021.

We already have a speaker for next year’s conference 2021: Lyndsey Stonebridge who is Interdisciplinary Chair and Professor of Humanities and Human Rights at Birmingham University. Professor Stonebridge is an international authority on Hannah Arendt and has a book coming out on her work soon.

We ask you to save the date of the Symposium if you are interested in participating while we work up an agenda for the day. The day may well include:

  • Opportunities for delegates to bring current organisational dilemmas to present in a workshop or simply to discuss in break-outs.
  • Contributors to the forthcoming Complexity and Management series of edited volumes might want to rehearse the key themes of their chapters in workshop to see what resonance they have with others.
  • An experiential group.

If you have any other ideas you would like to discuss, or if you would like to present some research, please get in touch. I will communicate more details about the event in the autumn.

Complexity and Management Conference 5-7th June 2020 – details of the improvisation workshop

Complexity and collaboration – implications for leadership and practice

The contemporary emphasis on collaboration in organisational discourse is counter-cultural. Managerialism depends a lot on metrics which emphasise and scrutinise the individual. It is very rare to find a process of performance appraisal, for example, which takes into account teamwork. Ordinarily staff may be invited to be their ‘best selves’ at work, to make good individual choices, and to align with the values.collaboration

The new interest in collaboration might be understood as a movement towards groups, perhaps a reminder to reconsider what we have always known. It is ironic that all the texts which are currently being written linking the importance of collaboration for innovation, say, are offered breathlessly as though this is both a novel and deep insight into the human condition. We have always, and always will collaborate. But collaboration doesn’t just lead to the good – people also collaborate to resist, subvert, and to block. Nor is collaboration the only thing which is going on in a group when people are trying to get things done together. The moment we make conscious the intention to collaborate, then all kinds of other motives and activities may come to the fore, including competition, rivalry and anxiety. Continue reading

What does it mean to be critical? – the paradox of the private and the public

‘…the most admirable thinkers within the scholarly community you have chosen to join do not split their work from their lives.’

C Wright Mills, Appendix to The Sociological Imagination.

In previous posts we have considered what it means to be critical. To bring one’s critical faculties to work can be unsettling for oneself and for others because it begins to reveal, and perhaps pick away at, power relationships. Perhaps Kant was the first philosopher to observe that to use one’s critical judgement involves subjecting authority public privateto scrutiny and come face to face with the exercise of power. What we take to be given, taken for granted, which is one of the ways that power works in society, may suddenly appear to be less so. And there may be a cost in denaturalising the way things are done around here particularly if the dominant ethos in the organisation is appreciative, or sets great store by ‘alignment’. The cost might be to exclude oneself or to make oneself vulnerable. Continue reading

Complexity and Management Conference 5-7th June 2020

This is to give you advance notice that next year’s Complexity and Management Conference will be 5th-7th June 2020, at Roffey Park, speaker and topic to be decided.